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Berlin meets Nairobi

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Musical exchange: The band and the rapper Jahcoozi Nazizi BLNRB were part of the project.

A musical city partnership bridges the gap between two continents – By Jonathan Fischer

It began with a misunderstanding: When the German electro producer Andi Teichmann threw on some techno records at an exhibition opening at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, the young Kenyans present tried their best to absorb the strange rhythm – but after 30 minutes of perplexity they fled the dance floor. Obviously, the local audience was overwhelmed with the music ambassador’s hard beats from the world-renowned techno capital Berlin.

John Hossack, director of the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, recognized that the local scenes in Berlin and Nairobi, despite both having a global club culture, tick quite differently. The idea of bridging that gap appealed to him: What would happen if representatives of Berlin’s electronic dance music collaborated with the best musicians from Nairobi’s lively club scene to bring together two music genres and two continents?

Not long after, Hossfeld teamed up with the brothers Andi and Hannes Teichmann to initiate the project “Berlin meets Nairobi.” They had a new kind of twinning in mind: Instead of mayors and city officials, DJs and club musicians would interact in a musical dialogue. Under the project name “BLNRB” – the combined initials of the two cities – the first delegation from Berlin was on its way in the spring of 2009: On board along with the Teichmann Brothers were break beat duo Modeselektor and the three members of Jahcoozi, a multicultural electro-rave group. The musicians and producers from Berlin didn’t have a clue about Kenyan dancehall reggae and hip-hop.

Andi Teichmann explained the advantage of their artistic endeavor: “We didn’t want to come in as aid workers. Our goal was to have an effect on each other and learn from one another.” And of course, the Germans also hoped to find new ideas for techno beats through BLNRB.

In Nairobi, the Berliners met with two dozen musicians with various backgrounds: the rapper Mr. Abbas, Kimya and Lon’ Jon, Nazizi – the Kenyan First Lady of HipHop, the house music group “Just a Band,” the blind guitarist Michel Ongaru and others. They were joined by members of the Mombasa-based hip-hop group Ukoo Flani and percussions band Radi. After a few concerts in the east African city of three million it was clear that they needed a fixed venue to record the pieces, where everyone involved in the project could live, work and make music together for several weeks.

The Goethe Institute rented a house with three studios in spring last year. The Berliners supplied the recording equipment and the Kenyan’s brought with them their enthusiastic work habits. Soon the meeting place became known simply as the Madhouse. News of the recording sessions spread like wildfire across Nairobi, and the studios were besieged day and night – often with 24-hour non-stop productions. For the Germans, working without anywhere to retreat to was a challenge. “Sometimes we recorded in the bedrooms and sleeping was only possible once the work was done,” said Teichmann. “Other times there would be six people working in the living room – leaving you with not even a moment to switch off.”

Using the trial and error approach, the Kenyans and Germans tried many methods to figure out what would work. Things hardly ever worked out right away. For a while the Berlin producers had no idea how they could combine their techno sound with the much more melodic rap of the Kenyans. And the Germans’ attention to detail sometimes made an uptight impression on their African counterparts. So everything was given a shot.

Once, a touch of classical music helped to bring the rappers and producers together. In the end, it wasn’t only the Kenyans who had benefited from the sophisticated studio techniques; the techno DJs also found a way to make easier beats. When the Kenyans visited Berlin, the songs received the final touch.

Now the Munich label Outhere Records is releasing the results on an album. One of the most exciting moments of “BLNRB – Welcome To The Madhouse” includes tracks like “Dirty Laundry” in which rap songs in Sheng, a slang-based idiom made up of Swahili and English, take on Western break beats.

For the Teichmann brothers, the highlight of their journey to Kenya was a party in Kibera, one of the many slums of Nairobi. The resident artists there had invited the BLNRB project to perform a gig. The courtyard of Kibera’s Orthodox Church was converted into a stage, with the Goethe Institute providing a bus and equipment. Because of frequent power outages the DJs even brought a generator with them. By 2 p.m. the musicians had finished the construction: One after another, the rappers of Ukoo Flani, the Berlin Trio Jahcoozi and the Teichmann Brothers performed, while a steadily growing number of children danced to the rhythm of the music, and churned up the Kibera dust.

During a break, an eight-year-old and 12-year-old boy shouted out from the audience, asking if they could come up to the mike. “They were both incredibly good and so fast that even our rappers’ jaws dropped,” says Andi Teichmann. “The next day, we invited the two to the studio.” The recorded song “Take It Higher” from the young rappers Little King and Robo from the Gospel Warriors proves that the cultural bridge of BLNRB reached far beyond the clubs.